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Bourbon-Flavored Jellyfish Chips, Squid Like Pulled Pork and Octopus Like Butter

How food science is hunting down what you’ll be eating in the future

You walk into the restaurant with your date, or significant other (maybe with both if you’re extra kinky). This place was recommended to you. Your friend said it’s an undeniably unique experience. Once you’re seated, you discuss the gastronomic surprises to come. You order dishes whose names give little away other than the ingredients. You chat as you wait for your food to arrive. After some time passes, the waiter, dressed smartly in a tie and long black apron, approaches with a tray. You feel a tiny thrill of anticipation. The food is served with a flourish. Voila!

Decorating your plate is a sampling of delights from the near future: There’s a dish of squid, but it’s not rubbery; instead, it’s delicate and shredded like pulled pork. There’s a pasta dish with octopus, it’s served in slices so thin that when the discs of octopus hit your tongue they melt like butter. For texture, there’s a sprinkling of desiccated crickets and bourbon-flavored jellyfish chips that crunch like a potato chip, but disappear like spun sugar, leaving only the smoky flavor of a good bourbon. It’s future-food magic.

Of course, there’s one little problem. Well, it’s actually a huge problem for the future of food: The voraciousness of our appetites and the rapacious productivity of the modern fishing industry are combining to deplete the ocean of fish faster than nature can restore itself. Commercial fish stocks monitored by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization indicate that 31 percent of fisheries are being overfished. And around the world, seafood is being harvested at “biologically unsustainable levels.” So if we all want to continue to enjoy seafood in the future, we better amend our ways.

All of which brings us to Professor Matthias Clausen from the University of Southern Denmark. He’s leading a team of food researchers who are studying ways to make edible jellyfish. This is good news because we really need to start eating more jellyfish. At the moment there’s something of a Jellyfish Crisis. Those gooey, brainless, bloodless creatures are taking over the oceans — so much so that one prominent jellyfish research warns, “Mounting evidence suggests that open-ocean ecosystems can flip from being dominated by fish, to being dominated by jellyfish. This would have lasting ecological, economic and social consequences.”

We’ve entered a jellyfish hellscape for three simple reasons, per a JSTOR Daily paper:

  • 1) Overfishing: “…overfishing of predatory species such as tuna can result in population increases further down the food chain. With many of their predators in decline, jellies are freed from the predation and competition that otherwise keep them in check.”
  • 2) Agricultural Runoff: “In many parts of the ocean, high concentrations of agricultural nutrients cause plankton to grow explosively. This, in turn, depletes some areas of the ocean of oxygen, creating ‘dead zones.’ Most marine life can’t survive in an oxygen-deprived environment — except for jellyfish.”
  • 3) Climate Change: “Jellyfish can lie as polyps on the ocean floor for years, spawning only when conditions are favorable. Higher ocean temperatures mean that reproductive conditions that formerly occurred once every few decades now occur more frequently.”

And so, we may need to eat our way out of danger. On that count, there’s good news: Clausen and his lead researcher Mie Peterson have found a way to make jellyfish edible. With alcohol! But the jellyfish won’t get you drunk. The alcohol is just what’s used to dry them out. Afterwards, they look like this:

Jellyfish chips

I recently spoke with Clausen about the future of food; why even eating all that jellyfish won’t save us from climate change; and when you’ll likely be able to order jellyfish at a restaurant near you.

Not to oversimplify things, but essentially, you and Mie have discovered that submerging jellyfish in alcohol (basic ethanol like you’d find in liquor, wine or beer) denatures jellyfish quickly. After a couple of days in an alcohol bath, you pull out the jellyfish and dry them out. When you’re done, they look like discs of rice paper. If you soak ’em in water for a couple hours, they can be plumped-up and eaten.

The traditional Asian method of processing freshly caught jellyfish is to coat them in alum and table salt, and then store the jellyfish for anywhere between 15 days and a month. Your method replaces all that. Is that accurate?
Kind of, yes. What we found out is very simple. It’s as simple as you just said. You take a jellyfish, you put it in alcohol and then you leave it. You take it out of the alcohol and then you have the chips.

Jellyfish only provides 5 percent protein, the remaining 95 percent is water with some trace vitamins like B12, magnesium and selenium. So even after being dried-out and rehydrated, the jellyfish chips would still only offer about 5 percent protein by volume, correct?
We haven’t researched that. The raw jellyfish, it’s 96 percent water, and very little protein. A little tiny, tiny amount of fat. So you wouldn’t eat it for the nutritional value. And if you dry it in the traditional way — when you remove water with salt, there’s less water left, of course, so the nutritional value increases, but it’s still very low. With our method, we remove almost all the water, but you’d still have to eat a lot of the chips before it would contribute any nutritional aspect. We’ve been focusing more on the gastronomic value.

You essentially turned the jellyfish into a tanned leather. It’s an edible leather. Would you say that’s a fair description?
Yes. It’s still not as tough as leather, but it also hasn’t gone through all the processes that you do when you tan leather. It’s only partially become leather, but I think the analogy is fair.

In the press release about your work, you talk about jellyfish chips, but I noticed in the abstract for your journal paper, jellyfish seems more like an example for you. It seems you have bigger aims than giving the world delicious jellyfish dishes. What other molecular structures interest you as foods?
There are other organisms — sea cucumber would be one that could undergo the same thing. And then, just for curiosity, to see if what we saw was a general phenomenon, we took eye of pigs, put it in ethanol and made pig-eye chips. I don’t think they’ll sell so well if they came on the market. (laughs) But we did it just to prove it.

Is there any food you’re working on that if it came to market people might actually eat it, and it would offer some nutritional value?
We’re starting a project with squid and octopus. From a texture point-of-view, they’re very interesting. They can be like rubber and horrible to eat. Or they can be very soft and very tender. And this is a very narrow window. They have a complicated collagen network inside. We’ve started that project. Soon we’ll publish an overview paper on this and the different methodologies we used. Microscopy being one of them. It allows us to see how the collagen changes depending on different preparation techniques. We’ve tried to cook it at different temperatures, and for different times, and with more creative preparation methods.

Squid really can be like al dente pasta. They can also be like — just like butter almost. It melts in your mouth. And you can shred it like pulled pork, depending on the species and depending on the preparation methods. If you smoke it, or semi-dry it, it’s very, very interesting.

Our overall aim is to find out how texture plays a role, and how by modifying the texture of what we eat, we also modify what foods we eat. So, if we go back to the jellyfish, the texture that the Asian jellyfish has isn’t appealing to most Western people. When they bite it, it’s crunchy, but it’s crunchy like very soft connective tissue, which isn’t that pleasant to many people. But if we make it like a crisp, or a chip — then, this texture is much more appealing to Western culture.

Plate with Jellyfish. Clockwise, starting from the top: Living jellyfish, Shredded salt preserved jellyfish and shredded salt preserved jellyfish served with cucumber, vinegar, and horseradish.

Motherboard did a taste-test of your jellyfish chips. They fried the jellyfish with olive oil, and tried dipping them in various condiments, including mayonnaise and soy sauce. The reviewer wrote, “I’m happy to report that alcohol-soaked jellyfish tastes good — they’re both crunchy and salty.” Their one criticism was that they “do taste distinctly like the ocean.” Beyond the mouthfeel, do you have any plans to deal with the gastronomy of the seawater taste?
Tasting the ocean can be good and bad. It depends on what kind of water… Like, the water you have in a harbor — that kind of smell isn’t very pleasant. Some seaweeds have a very strong ocean taste, too, which for some people can be unpleasant. The effect of the salts and the ocean taste depends on how we prepare the jellyfish. If we wash them a lot, they have less of an ocean taste — we can kinda dampen that.

Also, we’re experimenting with different types of things dissolved in our alcohol. We did some other preliminary studies that tell us we can add flavor to the alcohol and then the flavor will end up in the jellyfish. We can modify them in any way we want. We tried to make them in bourbon, but we found that the issue was the bourbon wasn’t strong enough — alcohol-wise at least. So we had to add extra alcohol to dilute the bourbon. We haven’t dried it yet, but I’m sure it’ll work.

Alcohol-infused flavored jellyfish sounds interesting. But, really, why eat jellyfish at all? There’s scant nutritional value. Is eating jellyfish more about some dystopian answer to dealing with climate change? We’ve ruined things so much now we have to learn to eat jellyfish and like it?
To be honest, the project isn’t to save the world, and it isn’t to provide an answer for climate change — or solve the problems of the ocean. This would be an increased benefit. For us, it’s to understand gastronomy. I think we should eat jellyfish — to save the oceans, to find new resources. But my motivation to potentially eat jellyfish is for its gastronomic value.

Yes, we probably wouldn’t serve a full meal of jellyfish chips, and then go home feeling happy and full. But they’d add something different. Oftentimes, we don’t really eat for the nutritional value when we eat in expensive restaurants. Or just to get full. So eating is many more things than just the nutrition. The gastronomic value is unique.

For a comparison, would you say jellyfish chips could be like popcorn as a potential snack food that doesn’t deliver much nutritional value but is still a delight to eat?
Yeah, I haven’t thought about that analogy, but I think that’s good. I think it’ll probably never reach that point. The production is much more expensive. We’ve made it in a lab scheme, but if we were considering scaling it up, it would require quite a lot of alcohol — and then distilling the alcohol. This is expensive, even at large scale. This extra costly step would make it, in my belief, more of a high-end thing for restaurants. While I would love for it to become popcorn, I don’t think, because of the cost, it would ever reach that point.

So it would be more likely something you’d find in a Michelin-starred restaurant and at a rare gastronomic experience?
Yes, exactly.

Let’s talk about the future of food. Have you tried some of the other food products that aren’t typically eaten by Western palates, foods like crickets or mealworms?
This is becoming a thing, right? You can buy snacks of mealworms or crickets in the supermarket now — which kinda says there’s a potential for the jellyfish, as well. It’s a good path to go down; we need to integrate it into our cuisine. I have to be honest, though, when I see a cricket or a mealworm, my culture is on my shoulder dragging me down, because it doesn’t look appealing. Even the taste is nice — it’s crispy — but there’s some negative association that we have from the fact that we don’t normally eat these things. Of course, this will change over time, but I think, in that sense, the jellyfish are more appealing. We need, in general, with new foods, to recognize it will take some time before we will appreciate it for its own value, and not as a replacement product.

Okay. But what are your expectations for the future of food in a world facing climate change? Should we get used to eating things we never used to eat like jellyfish and insects?
(sighs) Yes. If you look in Denmark, the number of different things that you put on the plate and eat has increased a lot. For sure, not everybody will eat crickets and jellyfish in the next five years, but we will see new food sources coming up. Both because we have to look for new things and more sustainable things, and because we’ll realize that their taste is a good reason why they’re eaten in different places around the world. I don’t think everybody will eat jellyfish chips — maybe, ever. But also, this is where we have to change to meet the challenges of climate change — to think more in terms of lifecycles and sustainability.

How is jellyfish designated as a food? It’s alive. It moves freely. It’s an animal. But it’s not exactly a meat. Now, a mushroom is alive. It’s not an animal, but it’s not a plant either. It’s something else entirely. Like a mushroom with its “nerve ring,” a Jellyfish has no brain or central nervous system. It does, however, have a “nerve net.” Like mushrooms. Should we then consider jellyfish to be vegetarian?
We’ve discussed this a lot in our discussions about vegetarians and vegans. What is an alive thing? What is an animal? And I don’t know where to put it. (laughs) I mean, because, it’s definitely an animal, but it’s not… I don’t know. Could vegans eat this? I think that’s for the vegan to decide. But you can still eat potato chips, so… (laughs) Either way, I think the question should be more, is it healthy for you—and more importantly, is it healthy for the world?